The problem in the Arab-Israeli peace process in late 1985 is not how to arrange a negotiation. The problem is how to make it politically possible—even imperative—for leaders in the conflict to commit themselves to negotiate.

Making peace is first a political process, and only second a negotiating process, as the experience of the 1970s taught us. The intense negotiations of that decade, from the shuttle diplomacy of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger through the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979, followed political steps that had already demonstrated commitment to negotiation and lowered the human and psychological barriers to peace.

In 1977, we American diplomats were focusing on working papers and diplomatic formulas designed to arrange a resumption of the Geneva conference. President Anwar Sadat of Egypt saw that the real obstacle was not the failure to find the right formula but rather the doubts among both Arabs and Israelis that the other side was sufficiently committed to peace that it would change its position in negotiation. Accordingly, he went to Jerusalem to dramatize a message that Israel could not ignore: that Egypt accepted Israel and was committed to making peace.

More recently, by contrast, a political strategy has been lacking, a strategy that held reasonable promise of making an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian negotiation happen. To be sure, some preliminary steps were taken. Early in 1985, King Hussein of Jordan, Chairman Yasir Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt laid foundations for an Arab coalition to negotiate peace with Israel. For his part, Prime Minister Shimon Peres of Israel confirmed his belief that the integrity of the Jewish state depended on negotiating peace with Jordan and the Palestinians.

Yet over many valuable months, no one constructed the scenario that would join these two political tracks. No one successfully laid out a sequence of diplomatic and political steps, a scenario designed in substance and timing to meet the political needs of each party so leaders could commit themselves to negotiate.

Such a scenario serves two purposes. First, it outlines a sequence of actions to see how the political and substantive trade-offs would fit together to build an environment which could permit negotiation to begin. Second, it keeps the record clear on a pre-agreed series of interrelated actions and responses.

The odds against negotiations in the Middle East are always high. If leaders simply sit back and observe that the situation is not ripe for negotiation, nothing will happen, no matter how hard their diplomats may try. Prudent policymakers will ask themselves whether the moment is ripe for any movement at all toward a negotiated peace. Bold policymakers will also ask how—or at least whether—they can help the moment ripen. In the Middle East peace process, that active political commitment has been missing in critical quarters so far in the 1980s.

This includes third parties as well as those engaged in the conflict. Since none of the parties alone is able to construct a viable scenario, the task of a third party starts well before mediation in negotiation; it involves helping develop a scenario to reshape the political environment so leaders can build the political support they need to begin negotiation.

Instinctively we know what the key substantive issues are, but we often tie ourselves up in procedural questions. Instead of devising ways for Palestinians to achieve recognition of their identity so they could offer to negotiate peace with Israel and change the Israeli political environment, we Americans spent half of 1985 dithering over which Palestinian representatives Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy might meet.

The intelligent and responsible people involved recognize the political dimensions of the problem, but sometimes they simply do not articulate explicitly the real barriers in their path. Not identifying the real barriers, they do not design a scenario broad enough to remove them. It is worth sitting back and trying to do so.


Any negotiating process encompasses two distinct periods—one that precedes actual negotiations and one that starts as negotiators move toward the table. We are more familiar with the second—the period of actual negotiation—and we tend to think of the peace process as a negotiating process. By the end of the 1970s, Americans had grown familiar with pictures of Egyptians and Israelis sitting across tables from each other, with diplomats and lawyers exchanging texts, soldiers poring over maps and writing redeployment timetables, and heads of governments signing agreements. Most Americans let the first period slip from mind, the long and complicated period when leaders were deciding whether or not to commit themselves to a negotiated settlement.

Since the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed in March 1979, we have moved back to the early stages of the peace process. Attention has shifted to Israel’s eastern frontiers, and to parties not yet politically committed to negotiate peace with each other.

On none of these fronts have the political foundations for negotiation been laid. Recognizing that we are back in the early stages of the peace process, before the commitment to negotiate has been made, we must focus attention on the real issues to be tackled. Let me lay out a conceptual framework, which I shall then use to identify the political needs to be met in building the base for an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian negotiation.


In analyzing the peace process since leaving government in early 1981, I have found it useful to think of a negotiating process involving five stages:

First: defining the problem. Early in the negotiating process, each party will define its feelings, objectives and aspirations in relation to a particular situation, interpreting the situation both in isolation and in relation to the larger world view and objectives of its policymakers. How one defines a problem starts to determine what one will do about it.

Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab states and the United States are all deeply divided internally over how to define the problem in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Disagreements lead members of factions holding different views to kill each other. Palestinians are assassinated for envisioning a negotiated settlement with Israel. Israelis speak in violent terms about Israelis who hold different visions of the future of the Jewish state.

Since negotiation is shared decision-making on a shared problem, we must understand, first, how nearly unified or divided each party is in defining its objectives and, then, how the parties differ from each other in their definitions of a problem. We cannot expect unanimity before negotiations begin, but by comparing definitions to see where they diverge, we take an essential analytical step in identifying the barriers. Each side’s definition must somehow acknowledge the hopes and pain of the other. Only when each side sees the other’s concerns as part of the problem will the two definitions together suggest that a jointly attempted solution is worth considering.

Second: developing a commitment to negotiation. This is the period in which Israeli, Jordanian, Palestinian and American leaders found themselves in 1985, one of deciding whether to commit themselves to negotiation. If policymakers are uncomfortable with their present course, they look for alternatives and identify political barriers in their way. If they cannot achieve what they want by unilateral action, they ask whether negotiation is worth exploring. Although negotiation itself is the centerpiece of the negotiating process, the commitment to negotiate is the moment of political truth. Without the commitment, negotiation cannot start. Most of the years of the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been spent in this pre-commitment phase.

Crystallizing the commitment to negotiate is often the most complex part of the peace process because it involves a series of interrelated judgments. Before leaders will negotiate, they have to judge:

—whether a negotiated settlement would be better or no better than continuing the present situation;

—whether a fair settlement could be fashioned that would be politically manageable;

—whether leaders on the other side could survive politically such a settlement; and

—whether the balance of forces would permit agreement on such a settlement.

Before a new direction can be taken in this early period of the peace process, the political environment must sometimes be rearranged. Judgments of the highest political and human order are required. Decisions must be made on peace and war. How much damage or pain can a party suffer? Where will a course of action lead over the long term? Also required are the courage and foresight to say, "This can’t go on any longer." Astute political judgments must be made about when a constituency is ready to move to a new position, and skill is needed to create the catalyst. Understanding of the other side’s human and political needs is necessary to help leaders reach the decision to negotiate.

This early period is a time for political moves; it is not yet a time when the parties are ready to turn matters over to negotiators. The diplomats’ job at this stage is to help presidents, kings, prime ministers and chairmen see their choices clearly and identify diplomatically useful steps that will also meet political needs and help change the political environment. The barriers to peace will fall only when political leaders commit themselves and persuade their constituencies to join them.

Third: arranging a negotiation. Once leaders have decided to negotiate, the next stage is to discuss how to arrange a negotiation. Four issues must be considered:

—What will be the overall character and strategy of the negotiation? Will the aim be a series of bilateral discussions and agreements or a comprehensive negotiation bringing all the parties to the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict together? Will the objective be further interim steps or a final settlement now?

—What will be the mechanics of the negotiation? The Arabs and Soviets are pressing for a large international conference. Israel and the United States have long opposed such a conference as unwieldy and as giving veto power to the least common denominator Arab position.

—How will the parties be represented, particularly the Palestinians? The issue is highly political because it confronts the questions of who will be able to deliver Palestinian political support for any negotiated settlement and whether the Israelis will sit with those Palestinians.

—What will be the substantive starting point—the terms of reference? The issue is not just words but determining whether the parties can come to the negotiating table with objectives and pictures of the problem and the shape of a settlement that have enough in common to permit a shared solution through negotiation.

Fourth: negotiation—trying to reach agreement. In a way, negotiation has actually begun in these early stages. In the larger political process, however, there is a moment when leaders visibly shift gears and parties begin actually trying to reach agreement. They begin building political support, not just for negotiating, but for the shape of the agreement they hope to reach. They position themselves to deal with possible failure. Analysts may find other ways of defining the start of negotiation. In my experience, the negotiating process takes on a different character when the participants decide to try to reduce what they have talked about to a written agreement. They know that even the prospect of such an agreement would change the political environment.

If we take this perspective, a crucial purpose of the preparatory thinking and discussion is to accumulate the evidence that the risk of negotiation is justified—that negotiation can succeed, that the outcome could improve the situation, and that failure would be manageable. Discussing the elements of a settlement is different from trying to write them down in a potentially binding document submitted to public judgment. It is true that one party may enter negotiation for some political purpose without intending to work toward agreement, but a leader who takes such initiative runs the risk that the act of negotiating will create a momentum of its own and generate pressure for agreement.

Fifth: implementation. The last part of the peace process is the period when agreements are implemented. Implementation is an important stage, not only for the obvious reason that the purpose of negotiation is to produce an agreement that the parties have a stake in implementing, but also because careful implementation of one agreement may be the starting point for the next negotiation. Even a signed and ratified peace treaty only begins a new stage in a relationship.

In the 1970s, the American strategy came to be called "step-by-step diplomacy." Secretary Kissinger showed Arabs and Israelis how they could break the problem down into negotiable pieces, developing agreements that would build confidence and would change the political environment, counting on implementation to provide the new starting point for next steps. Step-by-step agreements, we argued, make possible negotiation tomorrow of points that could not have been negotiated yesterday. Changes in perception and attitude often occur in small, incremental, scarcely noticeable steps.

Two major conclusions emerge from an examination of these five stages of the peace process. First, as we move back to the early stages of the process that precedes leaders’ political commitment to negotiation, the job to be done is different from that when representatives are ready to gather in the negotiating room. Second, to bring the parties to active negotiation, we must identify the substantive and psychological issues with which political leaders grapple as human beings in reaching their own personal decisions to negotiate. These are often the main obstacles blocking their path to negotiation.

Using this analysis of the negotiating process in the period before leaders commit themselves to negotiate, I want now to focus on the Israeli and Palestinian camps to identify questions that must be answered and political needs that must be met before negotiation can begin. From such an analytical base, we may suggest political additions to be made in the diplomatic scenario.


Definitions of the problem. Israelis and Palestinians are deeply divided between those who are trying to come to terms with the other’s existence and those who have not been able to do so. The former try to understand how a relationship might work; the latter have not learned to see the other side as human beings with whom there is any reason to relate. A mediator must try to bring each side to see the other’s basic political needs as part of its own problem.

Israelis agree that their overriding problem is to secure the future of Israel and the Jewish people. The political dimension of Israel’s insecurity is the refusal of most Arab states to accept and recognize the Jewish state. Non-recognition plus the continuing threat of terrorist attack turns loose emotions of fear, illegitimacy, vulnerability, helplessness and mistrust rooted in centuries of diaspora, discrimination and persecution. Despite military or other physical security, fear of betrayal, abandonment and annihilation is seared into the Jewish soul and experience. Beyond the deep common concern for security, Israelis divide into two camps in defining the future.

For one—represented by Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir from 1977 to 1984 and the Likud members of the present government—the problem is how to perpetuate Israeli control over all the land west of the Jordan River. This camp draws support from Israelis who want to retain this land for their own combination of religious, historical, economic or security reasons. This group takes one of two positions toward the Palestinians. The first view is that they are not a separate people with the right of self-determination; they are "Arabs" who can live anywhere in the Arab world as an ethnic minority or simply "terrorists" entitled to no consideration at all. The alternative view is that they can turn Jordan into the Palestinian state.

The mainstream in the other camp—represented by Prime Minister Peres—believes that preserving the integrity of the Jewish state requires returning part of the West Bank and Gaza and their 1.3 million inhabitants to Jordan, and allowing Jordan and the Palestinians to define their relationship as long as they do not attempt to form an independent Palestinian state. These Israelis wrestle with the problem of how to relinquish rule while preserving security and access to historic lands. They struggle with how to persuade their countrymen of the benefits—even the necessity—of exchanging land for peace. These Israelis have begun to see the Palestinians as a people. They are concerned about the corrosion of their own values when, maintaining a military occupation, they deny the rights and often the humanity of those under occupation.

As long as Palestinians can be regarded as "terrorists" or "Arabs" or like "cockroaches in a bottle," to use the words of one former Israeli chief of staff, some Israelis will find it relatively easy to ignore, repress, expel or even kill them. Those Israelis who have learned to know Palestinians as human beings have begun to question their own ability to maintain human values while ignoring the values of the Palestinians. They are deeply concerned that most Israelis do not know what goes on in the areas under military occupation.

Palestinians are also divided. Some see Israel as part of the current picture and define the problem in terms of gaining recognition of their right to self-determination in the part of Palestine from which Israel withdraws. The map of the Middle East in their mind’s eye does include Israel. Other Palestinians reject peace with Israel. They start from the time that Israel was not on the map. They continue to define the problem as how to reclaim all of Palestine and how to secure the rights of Palestinians to return to homes they left in 1948. What has happened in the Israeli part of Palestine since 1948 has no place in their vision. Some of them, in their outrage, see Israelis only as colonizers and oppressors and support terrorist operations against any Israeli man, woman or child.

It is obvious why Palestinians now resident in the West Bank and Gaza might well settle for a homeland in those territories where their homes are. It is much more complex to explain why Palestinians who cannot return to pre-1948 homes would accept the new realities. Many of these longtime refugees seem to have transferred their dreams beyond the recovery of particular homes or farms to the recovery of their Palestinian identity. Political expression of that identity seems to have become the psychological vehicle through which many Palestinians may be able to let go of the past. In the exile community, a Palestinian passport and a Palestinian homeland to which they can look for an expression of their identity are the critical substitutes for recovery of all the land. Although this assertion cannot be proved quantitatively, the Palestinians holding this view in the mid-1980s appear to represent the mainstream.

Israelis and Palestinians will not agree on who has a right to the land, but they may be able to recognize each other’s feelings of belonging there. It may be enough for each people to include in its picture of the problem an awareness of what the other side has suffered, why it feels unjustly treated, and why it needs recognition of permanence in a land of its own. The Palestinians feel aggrieved that history has asked them to cede part of their land as the site of a home for Jewish people persecuted by others. Israelis see the land as their ancient home, their first safe haven after centuries of persecution. They seek acknowledgment of their suffering in the pogroms and the Holocaust; Palestinians seek some understanding that they mourn the loss of homes and land. When each side incorporates the other’s mourning and need for identity and security into its own picture of the problem, there may be a starting point for developing a common life in the land west of the Jordan River. If each side could help reduce the other’s fear by committing itself to peaceful means, there might be a starting point for negotiation.


The effect of passing time. Those leading both Israel and the Palestinian movement at the end of 1985 have a sense of urgency but, particularly in Israel, constraint is imposed by others who would like to see more time pass without negotiation.

Again, Israel divides along party lines. The governments under Begin and Shamir and the Likud Party today have avoided talk of negotiations in which any agreement would require Israel to leaVe a substantial part of the West Bank and Gaza. These governments have openly used time to tighten Israel’s control over the territories. The Labor Party leadership, on the other hand, and possibly even a majority of the population, recognize that the more entrenched Israel becomes, the more difficult it will be to withdraw. These Israelis believe it would be dangerous to the Jewish state to absorb a 40 percent Arab minority. For these Israelis, negotiation seems necessary, but even they have difficulty dramatizing the urgency of an early agreement.

The most compelling argument for urgent negotiation would be a realistic Arab offer to negotiate peace. Or a rising public sense of the ugliness of occupation, which might be dramatized in a variety of ways—increased press attention, demonstrations by concerned Israelis, Palestinian civil disobedience, or, most dangerous of all, bloody riots in the West Bank.

Prime Minister Peres and his Labor Party colleagues face a deadline of a different kind. To conclude their coalition agreement with the Likud, Peres agreed that Shamir, as leader of the Likud, would take over as prime minister in September 1986. If Peres is to remain prime minister, he will have to produce results by then that will strengthen his political position so that he can either reform the governing coalition or call new elections with a chance of increasing his party’s representation in the Knesset.

The Palestinians have believed in the past that time was on their side, that Arab strength would increase over years and that Israel would eventually have to bow to superior Arab numbers in armed struggles and would withdraw at least from territories occupied in 1967. By the mid-1980s, Palestinians, especially those in the occupied territories, had begun to recognize that Israel was so steadily and so firmly entrenching itself in the territories that it would be increasingly difficult for Israel to pull back even if new Israeli leaders wanted to do so.

Despite that recognition, some Palestinian leaders have seemed to prefer to drift along with the steady extension of Israeli control rather than engage in a process to arrest that extension. Why? Answers apparently lie not so much in belief that the alternatives to negotiation are potentially more productive as in the conviction that negotiation is the ultimate capitulation. At best, the Palestinians are being asked to legitimize and perpetuate Israeli possession of the land that they feel is legitimately theirs. They are being asked to engage in an act of generosity that is virtually without historical example, or to accept their own defeat. In each case, they are also still denied the recognition of their identity that would come from recognition of the PLO or of their right of self-determination. Even Sadat had to erase the humiliation of the 1967 Arab defeat by crossing the Suez Canal in 1973 before he could negotiate—and he was negotiating to get all Egypt’s land back. The challenge in bringing the Palestinians to the table is how to enable them to accept the loss of part of Palestine.

Palestinian leaders, whose roots lie mainly in the exile community, have naturally worried that a settlement will focus on the Palestinians who remain on the land in the West Bank and Gaza and will ignore the interests of those Palestinians who have been refugees. This fear that the interests of the exile community would be left out of a settlement was one strong reason for the Palestinians’ rejection of Camp David. PLO leaders claim that they alone represent the two million Palestinians living outside the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, who have no alternative Palestinian leadership at all.


The shape of a settlement. On each side, while factions may divide over the general form a settlement should take, very few in any camp have thought through either how their vision of a settlement would work out on the ground or how it would look to the other side.

In Israel, those who want to control all the land west of the Jordan River have not resolved among themselves how they would deal with the 1.3 million Arabs there. Begin proposed "administrative autonomy" for the Palestinians. General Ariel Sharon has insisted on establishing the Palestinian state in Jordan. Extremist Meir Kahane’s solution is to expel the Arabs. These views cannot provide the basis for negotiation, because no Arab will negotiate an agreement to give up the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem to permanent Israeli control.

Palestinians cannot understand why any Israelis, much less their experienced leaders, would expect Palestinians to be satisfied with such arrangements as autonomy. They remember Begin, who grew up with the autonomy of the Polish ghettos, spending much of his life fighting for an independent Jewish state. They cannot understand why Zionists do not understand Palestinians’ desire to shape their own state. Whatever the individual views within the Likud, none of them seems to envisage a settlement that takes into account any Palestinians’ views of themselves as an equal partner. And those Israelis willing to grant such a psychological equality cannot believe that the Palestinians will permanently accept a state confined to the West Bank and Gaza.

Key leaders of the Labor Party, in contrast to their Likud colleagues, share a commitment to the central equation in United Nations Security Council Resolution 242—the exchange of land for peace. Even in the Labor Party camp, however, differences in experience and viewpoint seem to have produced two different, though not conflicting, points of emphasis. Those whose experience includes the private exchanges with King Hussein and the disengagement agreements before 1976 focus on negotiating a "territorial compromise" with Jordan. Those whose experience also includes Camp David cite the need to pay attention to the transitional process by which control would pass from Israeli military authority to Arab authority.

Most important, those involved in Camp David point out that it may be politically impossible for the leaders of both Jordan and Israel to address territorial compromise immediately. This is because opponents of King Hussein will reject any but 1967 borders and opponents of Prime Minister Peres will reject any boundaries but the Jordan River. They further note that by concentrating on the functional aspects of transferring authority it may be possible to discuss lifting military rule while leaving discussion of final sovereignty until the right political moment. Such a strategy would permit a Labor Party prime minister to claim he was moving entirely within the framework of the Camp David accords, which a Likud government had negotiated and the Knesset had ratified.

For those Palestinians prepared to make peace with Israel, the debate about the shape of a settlement is over practical issues. How could they exercise their right of self-determination in present circumstances? Exactly how would political expression of their identity be worked out in a constructive relationship with Jordan? How would the role of the PLO be defined? Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would also ask: exactly what agreements will govern the necessary continuing relationship with Israel?

For the first time, some Palestinians are thinking in pragmatic terms about how to move from military occupation to political freedom and what forms freedom would take. During the Jordanian-Palestinian talks that produced the Hussein-Arafat agreement of February 1985, discussion of how Palestinian self-determination might be arranged reached a new level of practicality. The option of confederation between a Palestinian West Bank and Jordan had been in the air for more than a decade. The details have not been fully discussed, but that agreement recorded the intention to seek a solution within such a context—Palestinian self-determination exercised within a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation. This step reflects Palestinian focus on the shape of a settlement that could become the subject of negotiation.

The psychological importance to the exile community of identification with a Palestinian homeland and of determining how they will relate to the homeland in practical ways—passports, voting, investment, property ownership—will become an important part of the process. Those people shaping a negotiating process will need to take into account a Palestinian political process in which a major issue within the Palestinian community itself is the nature of the settlement.

Those Israelis who favor sharing the land west of the Jordan River with the Palestinians and working out a cooperative relationship with Jordan now have a framework for such an option, a framework created by the key Arab actors in the Hussein-Arafat agreement. They also have an opportunity to enhance the credibility of that arrangement among Palestinian constituencies by demonstrating that the Palestinian movement can achieve recognition of Palestinian identity within that framework. Formal Israeli and U.S. statements reflecting understanding of the suffering, losses and interests of the entire Palestinian people would cost little and buy much.


Can the other side accept? Each leader is skeptical that the other can deliver political support for a settlement even if one could be negotiated. The salient question, therefore, is what leaders on one side can do to help leaders on the other side build that political support.

Even those Israelis willing to exchange land for peace know from earlier exchanges with Hussein that he has felt unable to accept any settlement other than Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders unless he has a Palestinian partner at his side as the concessions are framed. Hussein’s need to build a political base that includes the PLO certainly complicates potential negotiations between Israel and Jordan. Continuing terrorist actions, the Palestinian National Charter of 1968, and contradictory statements from PLO leaders contribute to an Israeli picture of the PLO, which in turn colors the Israeli assessment of the constraints on Hussein’s ability to negotiate.

An equally fundamental issue may be whether Israelis could honestly accept any Palestinian recognition of Israel. In addition to their basic fear of PLO intentions, Israelis may consciously or unconsciously feel that acknowledging a PLO claim in Palestine would be an admission that their own claim is less than absolute. Deep in some Israeli consciences may also be a personal fear of coming face to face with the people whom the establishment of the Israeli state has made homeless and stateless. Although Israel has acknowledged some Palestinian rights, Israelis do not hear—or do not allow themselves to hear—the Palestinian voices fully enough to assess whatever they may be saying. A critical question for an Israeli leader who wants to negotiate a settlement with Jordanians and Palestinians is how to enable Israelis to hear and assess open-mindedly what Hussein and the Palestinians are saying.

The real obstacle to a settlement may no longer be the difficulties of arranging the technicalities of Palestinian recognition of Israel. The real breakthrough might come from mutual recognition of each other’s suffering and desire for permanence.

The Palestinians must come to terms not only with Israel but also with other Arabs, particularly with Jordan. Although many observers in the Arab world may find it disturbing to be asked to discuss the issue, the fact is that any effort to resume the Arab-Israeli peace process must build in part on an Arab-Palestinian political process to define their relationship. Although the Arab states formally support creating an independent Palestinian state, it is not at all clear how much any of them welcome the idea. It was 1974 before they finally acknowledged formally that the Palestinians should speak for themselves in a negotiation with Israel.

The Hussein-Arafat agreement was an important milestone in a long series of efforts to define a workable relationship between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Palestinian people. In the Palestinian community, discussion focuses on the degree of independent action considered to be an adequate political expression of separate Palestinian identity. The Hussein-Arafat agreement, therefore, was more of an Arab coalition agreement than a basis, in the first instance, for negotiation with Israel.


The balance of forces. By any objective standards, the military balance of the 1980s overwhelmingly favors Israel. How military superiority translates itself into a negotiating stance depends on the balance of political forces, both within domestic constituencies and from the outside.

The Israelis have worked tirelessly to build an unchallengeable military force. By now they must feel that they have succeeded. The issues in Israel in 1985 were not whether Israel maintained military superiority, but what effect defense expenditures were having on the economy and whether Israeli leaders had shown wisdom in using their military power, in Lebanon, for example.

According to the Israelis’ own psychological self-portrait, their sense of security should place Israel in a solid position to negotiate. Either the self-portrait is incomplete or other interests complicate the picture. Some Israelis seem to believe that Israel can operate without limits or without a concern for consequences. In Lebanon, many Israelis found it abhorrent that their leaders were sacrificing lives on both sides to achieve debatable political objectives beyond Israeli self-defense, and were creating an environment in which violence without limits seemed to have become a tolerable instrument of policy. Internal political pressures constrained the use of military power.

The relationship between Israel’s superior military power and the readiness to negotiate has acquired a further internal dimension. Will Israeli forces also be used to subjugate an alien population permanently within Israeli boundaries? The prolonged existence of military government in areas under Israeli control worries those concerned about the damage that the use of superior force can do to the very soul of the Jewish state.

The Palestinians, after their military defeat and expulsion from Lebanon in 1982 and the split in the PLO that Syria forced in late 1983, seemed to recognize that they did not by themselves carry enough weight on the negotiating scales to assure themselves of a fair outcome. They needed a coalition base from which to approach negotiation. Because of Jordan’s geographical position and historical relationship to the West Bank and to Israel, a Jordanian-Palestinian relationship was the natural cornerstone of such a coalition. Egypt’s relationship with Israel and the United States, and its experience with the peace process, have led the PLO to accept Egypt’s involvement. Beyond the Arab coalition, the Palestinians have persistently sought to draw the United States into support of the realization of Palestinian rights. Some of Arafat’s colleagues may argue for keeping the door open to a Syrian-centered coalition, but others see no alternative to Jordan.

In approaching a potential negotiation, the PLO possesses a nonviolent weapon for changing the balance of political forces inside Israel. The PLO could declare a suspension of violence by organizations under its control during negotiation. In taking that step, the PLO would be supporting the efforts of people in Israel who argue for a negotiation that includes the Palestinians. Such a declaration could appear, at the appropriate moment, to be the equivalent of Sadat’s call for "no more war." A few Palestinians have shown interest in using nonviolent techniques in the West Bank and Gaza to build political pressure inside Israel for withdrawal of the military government, but by late 1985 the idea still did not have a significant following.

For the PLO has a tradition of violent reactions as well. The Palestinians know they cannot physically break the Israeli military government, but some of them are beginning to ask whether creating a bloodbath in connection with military repression could generate political pressures inside Israel for withdrawal.


Now let us combine these elements into a framework that introduces political considerations into an illustrative scenario for what could lie ahead.

Through the middle of 1985, a four-step scenario proposed by Jordan provided a starting point for discussion: first, a U.S. meeting with a Jordanian-Palestinian group to pave the way for explicit PLO agreement to negotiations based on Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338; then a Jordanian-PLO-U.S. conference; followed by an international conference with the five permanent members of the Security Council to give international legitimacy to negotiations; and finally, direct Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian negotiations.

Recently, parts of this scenario were being adjusted or replaced, but it remains instructive because it was designed to meet a combination of political and diplomatic requirements. Despite recognition of political requirements, most of the discussion has focused on the diplomatic steps in the scenario. Each of those, of course, could have political impact, but none by itself is sufficient to break down the barriers which kept the first step from being taken.

One approach has been to try to compress the scenario to make the trade-offs publicly visible as quickly as possible. But little discussion took place about introducing other political steps into the scenario—partly because officials judged that these were all the traffic that senior political levels could bear. The fact that it has proved impossible to take even the first step illustrates how important it is to spotlight the real barriers to progress and cause leaders to think hard about how they might be addressed.

The U.S. meeting with a group of Jordanians and "non-PLO Palestinians" was King Hussein’s way of beginning an explicit Palestinian-U.S. dialogue which would start to break down the barriers to PLO participation. Hussein has stated firmly that he cannot negotiate with Israel on the West Bank and Gaza by himself; he needs authoritative representatives of the Palestinian movement to endorse any concessions to be made. The political trade-off in such a meeting would involve U.S. assurance of support for a settlement that includes Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and political expression of Palestinian identity in those territories in return for a Palestinian statement of readiness to negotiate peace with Israel on the basis of Resolutions 242 and 338. The PLO, in the February 1985 Hussein-Arafat agreement, accepted the principle of trading "land for peace"—Israeli withdrawal in return for Palestinian and Jordanian recognition and peace with security—but the PLO has not stated that position as a direct offer to Israel to negotiate. It wants assurance first that at least the United States supports that exchange.

The issue in arranging this first step was the degree of PLO representation in the group. Meeting the PLO is one way of recognizing Palestinian identity—precisely the step many Israelis do not want to take. The list of Palestinians proposed to attend included some individuals who are members of official bodies of the PLO. The United States felt meeting with those individuals would cause a strong political reaction in Israel and the United States that would bar Prime Minister Peres from entering any proposed negotiations.

The question that this impasse poses is whether a different first step could be devised. Is there some other way to meet the Palestinian need for assurance that the United States recognizes the right of the Palestinian people to choose their own representatives and will stand behind the principles of Resolution 242 if the PLO accepts the resolution?

The problem is how to bring about negotiations between Israel and authoritative Palestinian representatives when both sides are still divided over whether they really want to negotiate a settlement with each other. A meeting could provide the vehicle for a first step toward negotiation between these two parties—but only if a political environment has been created in which they have decided to negotiate. The real issue is how to precipitate that decision.

The Arab parties want to negotiate under international auspices broader than U.S. mediation; they regard the United States as uncritically supporting Israeli positions and they want to break out of the past pattern of negotiations in which Egypt isolated itself by negotiating alone with Israel. Israel and the United States have regarded a big international conference as unwieldy and unworkable and have resisted involving the Soviet Union when it has no relationship with Israel and would be seen as uncritically backing Arab demands. Is there a manageable way of meeting the needs of both sides?

Here are some new elements that might be woven into a scenario. They would add larger political steps aimed at changing the political environment to the concrete diplomatic steps that may become the vehicles for expressing those political shifts.

First: A private Hussein-Peres channel of communication would enable each side to send word that it plans to take one or two public steps designed to meet the other side’s political problems. Hussein might pass word that he is prepared to speak directly to the Israeli people, to offer to negotiate peace and explain the need of both peoples to resolve the Palestinian problem; he could ask Peres’ advice on timing and substance. Peres might share thoughts on slowing the settlement of Israelis in the West Bank or relaxation of military government controls in some areas. He might, if he felt confident in the security of the channel, share his views on the need to confront the Palestinian problem directly. The purpose of exchanges like this would be to increase confidence and to share precise information on political needs to the extent that can be done safely.

Second: The United States must understand Peres’ political timetable and needs. How do peace issues play into coalition politics in Israel? What steps in the peace process would be manageable within the coalition? For instance, would it be useful if negotiations were to address interim steps first, staying within the conceptual framework of the Camp David accords which Begin negotiated and the Knesset ratified? What steps might the United States take toward the Palestinians that would be more manageable politically in Israel than an immediate public meeting with members of the PLO? For instance, would a U.S. statement supporting Palestinian self-determination in the context of the Hussein-Arafat agreement on a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation be manageable in Israel? Could the United States manage a secret meeting with the PLO if it led to a PLO moratorium on violence and commitment to negotiate peace and normal relations with Israel? What variations on an international meeting within a Security Council context could Peres manage if assured that it would lead quickly to direct negotiations? Under what circumstances could he absorb inclusion of PLO representatives in a Jordanian negotiating team? How could he intensify the concern in Israel about the consequences for the Jewish state of perpetuating military occupation? How could the plight of the Palestinian people—apart from their terrorist fringes—be presented in Israel so as to help Israelis relate to them as human beings?

Third: The American dialogue with Hussein in the latter part of 1985 actively and imaginatively explored variations on the specific sequence of steps he proposed, but the better dialogue would be to seek political steps outside that scenario that might be more effective in changing the political environment. For instance, could a secret U.S. approach to the PLO bypass an initial public meeting? Such an approach could be taken to discuss a PLO moratorium on violence and commitment to peace with Israel in return for a symbolic public gesture recognizing Palestinian identity and right to self-determination while acknowledging a PLO role in negotiations. The United States has taken the public position over the years that it can deal directly with the PLO where the security of Americans is at stake. Would a statement on Palestinian self-determination in the context of the Jordanian-Palestinian confederation envisioned in the Hussein-Arafat agreement be of political value? Direct discussion by an official or by an authorized emissary would offer an opportunity to show understanding and interest in the PLO leaders’ political problems in stating unequivocally their acceptance of Resolutions 242 and 338 and readiness to negotiate peace with Israel.

Fourth: Further public statements by the leaders of Israel and Jordan could contribute to a change in the political environment on both sides of the borders. Their speeches at the United Nations in September and October were first steps. A speech or interview by Peres reflecting concern that perpetual military government is inconsistent with Israeli values could signal Israeli readiness to discuss a change in arrangements in the West Bank and Gaza. At the same time, Peres could recall that a Likud government at Camp David agreed to withdraw military government and to establish a Palestinian self-governing authority. King Hussein has the option of making a well-publicized speech to the Israeli people on Jordanian television, which many Israelis watch regularly. The purpose of the speech would be to repeat unequivocally Jordan’s readiness to negotiate peace with Israel; to acknowledge the suffering of Jews and Arabs alike; to discuss frankly the need to recognize the special problem and the rights of the Palestinian people "who live among Israelis and Jordanians."

Fifth: Immediately following Hussein’s speech, an unequivocal PLO statement of its position, including acceptance of Resolutions 242 and 338 and rejection of violence, could be directed at Israel. Its impact would be enhanced if it explicitly stated that the Palestinian movement will pursue future relations with Israel only through peaceful means if peace can be negotiated. The authority of such a statement would be enhanced if backed by simple published resolutions of the PLO executive committee or the Palestine National Council. It would be further enhanced if key figures around Arafat known to have disagreed with him in the past over negotiating with Israel made individual statements supporting the resolutions. The Achille Lauro hijacking and the breakdown in London of British efforts to produce PLO signatures on a document accepting Israel have raised high obstacles for the PLO to overcome.

Sixth: To meet the Arabs’ need to put negotiations in an international context, the United States might discuss further with Hussein, with the Soviet government, and with the secretary general of the United Nations ways of providing such a context for negotiations among the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The purpose of these discussions would not necessarily be to arrange an international conference but to discuss the barriers to negotiation that the Arabs look to a conference to remove. The question would be whether a series of steps could be arranged that would create an international political process to undergird a negotiation without the unwieldy aspects of a major conference. For instance, if the United States were establishing a substantive dialogue with the PLO, if the Soviet government were talking with Israel and the United States, and the Euro-Arab dialogue were supplemented by a Euro-Israeli dialogue, would it be possible for a small group of interested representatives to meet at the U.N. informally as a sort of steering group keeping track of the negotiations? An international sounding board would be established without the paralyzing aspects of a formal conference.

Seventh: The United States could propose to Syria a series of high-level meetings to discuss further cooperation in the peace process. If the Syrians were interested and if discussions were warranted, a meeting between the presidents should not be ruled out. It is not at all clear that Syria would be interested in discussing participation in any process that can be envisioned, but a systematic effort to find out might at a minimum make it easier for the PLO and Jordan and at a maximum produce a necessary Israeli-Syrian negotiating forum. Any dialogue of this kind would have to be coordinated with Jordan’s own discussions with Syria.

Eighth: At some point, when enough of these steps have been taken to increase political support for responding, a forcing mechanism will be needed to precipitate negotiation. That forcing move may very well have been defined and agreed to in diplomatic dialogue. It would need to include: a specific offer by one party or invitation by a third party to meet at a specific time and place; as much understanding as possible about the format for the negotiation; and a shared vision of the shape of the outcome. This dialogue will have paralleled the political scenario, and some steps may have been interrelated.

Those directly involved will define the specific steps to be taken. My point is that those directly involved need to include President Reagan, Prime Minister Peres, King Hussein, President Mubarak, President Assad and Chairman Arafat—as well as their diplomats. The next moves are in their hands. Until these political leaders commit themselves to negotiation and work in the political arena to build political support for negotiation, the diplomats and negotiators will not have a chance.

When President Reagan turns his attention to the Middle East peace process after the Geneva summit, he will encounter two schools of thought among his advisers. One will argue that the United States should continue to wait for the Arabs and Israelis to get their political houses in order and come to Washington ready to negotiate. Then the United States should help. Others will argue that American diplomacy should step out creatively to see how to help the parties get their houses in order by contributing active assistance and resuming a role as "full partner." I favor this latter approach. The President’s decision will determine whether the United States will let slip away what may someday be recognized as the most important moment of opportunity in this decade.

This point is not confined to the Middle East. It could apply just as well to the future conduct of Soviet-U.S. relations in the wake of the summit. A president in the 1980s needs to give the same meticulous attention to the daily political management of foreign relationships as he gives to managing a major legislative initiative on its way through Congress. The peace process requires the same careful day-by-day management because it is, above all, a political process.

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  • Harold H. Saunders, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs from 1978 to 1981, is now Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington. He is the author of The Other Walls: The Politics of the Arab-Israeli Peace Process.
  • More By Harold H. Saunders